City of Rocks State Park

Faywood, New Mexico – January 8, 2023

One day – I think it was a Tuesday but I could definitely be wrong – about 35 million years ago, a volcano began erupting in what is now southwestern New Mexico.

Somewhat later, on January 8, 2023, Nancy, Gunther and I visited City of Rocks State Park, located about 20 miles south of the caldera that produced the eruptions. The pumice and other rocks produced by the volcano’s eruptions 35 million years ago form the main feature of the state park, which also has a number of interconnected hiking trails, developed campsites, a botanic garden, and even an astronomical observatory.

We’d planned to visit he park, which is located halfway between Deming and Silver City, New Mexico, just a few miles east of U.S. Route 180, several times in 2021 and 2022 when we were camping in Deming and Silver City. However, the 35 mile-per-hour winds each of those days convinced us to find something else to do. The morning of January 8 was bright and calm, and we made the short trip to the state park. We’re all glad that we did.

You’ll find plenty of prickly pear cactus at City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico, along with a wide variety of other plants. In the background, a vehicle provides a sense of scale for the namesake rocks near the park’s visitor center.

The park, at an elevation of just over 5,200 feet, gets its name from several tall outcroppings of rock that have eroded over the past 35 million years into pinnacles and other formations, separated by lanes that resemble city streets between tall buildings.

Here we see an amateur geologist, with her professional dog, on one of the park’s trails. They appear to be in disagreement about which direction to proceed. The park has about five miles of trails, some of which wind directly through the rock formations. Many of the pinnacles are 40 feet tall.

Paths between the rocks can get pretty tight. During the main phase of the volcano’s eruption, more than 240 cubic miles – about twice the volume of Lake Erie – of pumice and ash were ejected. This eruption also resulted in the “Kneeling Nun” formation east of present-day Silver City, 20 miles to the north. The pointed mountain seen between the two rocks is Cookes Peak (elev. 8,408 feet), a significant landmark in southwestern New Mexico. The mountain is directly north of the city of Deming.

The volcanic eruption that formed the formations of City of Rocks likely lasted several years and was about a thousand times larger than the Mt. St. Helens event in Washington on May 18, 1980. The eruption blanketed this area in a deep layer of hot ash and pumice. As those volcanic materials cooled into a rock called tuff, it shrank somewhat and vertical cracks in the stone were created.

They still haven’t agreed on a direction in which to hike. The park has a huge variety of succulents, like the soaptree yucca at the left of the trail, as well as many grasses common to the southwestern United States.

Over the last several tens of millions of years, the erosive forces of nature – water, wind, and organic growth – broadened the small fissures between the rocks into larger and larger crevices until the natural pathways seen today were created.

Now they’re both headed the same direction. The amateur geologist is standing in a crevice that is a conduit for water flowing through the rock formation. It’s that water, which carries abrasives like sand, that helped carve the rocks into the shapes we see today. Other contributors to the erosion include wind, which can also carry sand, as well as plant (and non-plant) life and the cycle of freezing and thawing water.

Many different groups of native Americans have lived in, or at least passed through, the area now known as City of Rocks. About 12,000 years ago, the last of the Ice Age glaciers were retreating and large mammals like mammoths and mastodons roamed this region. It’s likely that Paleoindians, like Clovis or Folsom peoples, hunted the large animals. Between 8,000 and 1,000 years ago, small bands of the Desert Archaic culture lived in the area and, toward then end of that era, began to build pit houses. Finally, the Mimbres culture occupied the area between the years 200 and 1150 AD. In addition to hunting animals and gathering food from plants, the Mimbres cultivated crops like beans, squash, and maize. They also built one-story above-ground dwellings.

Do you like lichen as much as I’m likin’ this lichen? There are about 20,000 known species of lichen in the world, and at least four of them can be seen in this photograph. Lichen, which is plant-like but not an actual plant, contributes slowly but significantly to the erosion of rocks by chemically degrading the stones’ minerals. The scientists estimate that between 6-8 percent of the earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. Actual plants, like succulents, grasses and shrubs, also contribute to erosion by their seeds finding purchase in small crevices in the rock and then, as the plants mature, the growing roots of the organism can cause further fracturing of the minerals.

Getting up-close and personal with the rocks allows one to see some pretty fascinating natural patterns caused by erosion. I sure hope that whoever dropped those keys comes back by to pick them up! (Just kidding – they’re mine. Still need to go back and pick them up.)

Because the park is 25 miles from the nearest city of any size, it’s a popular site for stargazing at night. This structure is an astronomical observatory located near the main campground in the park. The roof slides back onto the supports in the back to reveal the telescope. It was not in operation during our visit (as you can see, it was daylight), but the park does host regular star parties during which the observatory is open and other amateur astronomers bring their own telescopes to share views of the night skies.

This magnificent succulent specimen, about 20 yards off the trail, is desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri). I didn’t want to get off the trail to take a closer picture, so this will have to do. The fronds of desert spoon were used by native Americans to weave baskets and mats, and its inner core can be fermented into an alcoholic drink, similar to tequila, called sotol. It is found in southern New Mexico and Arizona, as well as parts of Texas and Mexico. The plants themselves grow to about 5 feet tall, but the flowering spike can soar 16 feet into the air.

Here’s another interesting succulent found along the trail. This long-spined, purplish prickly pear is called long-spined purplish prickly pear (really) (Opuntia macrocentra). It, too, is found in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, along with Mexico. Like other prickly pears, the fruit of this cactus is edible and is enjoyed by animals and humans alike.

But it wasn’t simply succulents we saw – we also spied several species of sparrows! Here’s a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) perched in some mesquite. We’ve enjoyed seeing plenty of these pretty little birds in southern New Mexico this winter.

While most of the pictures in this posting were taken with the camera on my phone, I used my digital camera to take this photo of Cookes Peak. The tall spindly shrub in the lower left corner is ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which can grow to more than 30 feet in height. It is native to the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts in the United States and Mexico. Native Americans used different parts of the plant to address a variety of ailments, and ocotillo can also be planted to serve as a natural fence.

A short spur off the main trail took us to the top of a 300-foot hill that provided a tremendous 360-degree view of the area. In this photo, the rock formations of City of Rocks are in the midground (the white streaks above the center of the photograph are campers’ recreational vehicles parked amongst the rocks, and the light brown building to the left of the RVs is the park’s visitor center). The tallest mountains on the left horizon are the Cobre Mountains, 16 miles away, and the Pinos Altos range, 30 miles in the distance, is just to the right of the Cobre Mountains.

This eye-catching grass is cane bluestem (Bothriochloa barbinodis), a valuable forage for ranchers but one of the first grasses to disappear if a pasture is overgrazed. The seed heads catch the sun in such a way as to look absolutely illuminated from within.

When we walk by a creosote bush (lower left), I like to rub my fingers on the leaves – they smell just like the air outside after a rainstorm. Along with seemingly every other plant, Native Americans found many medicinal uses for creosote. In the background is Table Mountain, the tallest point in City of Rocks State Park. The distinct layers of rock seen on the mountain’s slopes are due to different volcanic ashflows more than 30 million years ago..

If you plan to visit City of Rocks State Park, you’ll want to do make plans to do so soon-ish. The erosional forces that created the cracks between the rocks continue to degrade the stones even today (I mean, you saw all the lichen), and in several million years the whole area will just be flat.

Nancy and I definitely enjoyed our time in the park – it was a lovely day, with highs in the low 60s and very calm breezes, and the 4-mile hike gave all of us some great views and good exercise (Monday, January 9, was a day of relaxation and recuperation for Gunther). We plan to take the Goddard to the park in the next few years for some actual camping – it has more than 40 developed sites – and it has some other trails that we haven’t yet enjoyed.

White Sands National Park

Alamogordo, New Mexico – November 24, 2022

(Editor’s note: alert readers may note that I haven’t posted any updates on this blog for several months. We did lots of things between visiting the Barbed Wire Museum in May and White Sands National Park in November, but I’m going to post this now and fill in the months in between.)

On Thanksgiving Day, Gunther and Nancy and I went to White Sands National Park. It’s near the town of Alamogordo (Spanish for “fat cottonwood”), New Mexico, where we camping for a week. We were a bit surprised at the number of people who’d also chosen to visit the park on Thanksgiving, but, judging from the languages and accents we heard, we think a lot of them were tourists from Japan.

White Sands was first declared a national monument in 1933 and was re-designated as a national park in 2019. Nancy and I visited the then-monument during a trek through New Mexico in 2015, but were happy to share the experience again with Gunther. White Sands is the most-visited of the two national parks in New Mexico; a typical year sees 600,000 people stroll, slide, stumble, and tumble down its dunes. During the last two years, the pandemic increased that visitation to more than 700,000 visitors annually. (Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the state’s other national park, receives about 440,000 visitors each year. Two of those were Nancy and me; more to come on that.)

White Sands National Park is on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, which encompasses about 175,000 square miles. This desert, the largest in North America, stretches 1,200 miles from Alamogordo southward well into Mexico.

We took a walk on the park’s Interdune Boardwalk, which provides a lot of introductory information about the park’s ecosystems, and then hiked a two-mile loop in the dunes themselves along a marked trail where backcountry camping is permitted. There’s not a path in the dunes; the wind would scour away any trail in the sand within a couple of days. Instead, the route is marked with tall posts.

That’s a grass known as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the foreground. Little bluestem is very common throughout the Great Plains and the intermountain west, and can survive in the desert here at White Sands National Park because the water table is typically only two or three feet below the surface. While on our hike, we noticed that the sand between the dunes was actually pretty wet. The Tularosa Basin, which includes the town of Alamogordo as well as the national park and White Sands Missile Range, is bordered by the Sacramento Mountains on the east (in the background of this photo) and by the San Andres and Oscuro mountain ranges on the west. The Tularosa Basin is about one-third larger than the state of Connecticut.

Some more rather staggering numbers regarding White Sands National Park: the sand has an average depth of about 30 feet, some of the dunes are 60 feet high, and the scientists figure that the dunefield contains about 4.5 billion tons of sand.

This photo, taken from the passenger seat of the Goddard’s six-wheeled towing unit, shows not snow, but sand. White Sands National Park features the largest gypsum dunefield in the world: at 275 square miles, it’s so big that it can be seen from space. (Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado measures about 30 square miles and contains several different minerals.) Only about 40 percent of the White Sands dunefield is in the national park; the rest is in the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), which surrounds the park, and is strictly off-limits to the public. WSMR has an area of 3,200 square miles and is the largest military installation in the United States (it’s 32% bigger than Kit Carson County in eastern Colorado). The national park is occasionally closed to visitors because of missile testing on the range. The world’s first atomic bomb, Trinity, was detonated on the northern edge of the missile range on July 16, 1945, as a test prior to the United States releasing atomic bombs in Japan to bring World War II to an end.

Here we see a visitor to White Sands National Park and her ill-behaved dog (it’s Nancy and Gunther) on the Interdune Boardwalk, a short elevated trail with many exhibits along the way. A good variety of desert plants, including shrubs, grasses, and cacti and succulents, thrive in some parts of the dunes.

The sand is remarkably white, and remarkably fine – most of the grains are smaller than crystals of table salt or sugar. Where did all of the sand come from? The answer lies, as many do, with the fact that this part of the planet was covered by a vast inland sea during the Permian Period (about 300-250 million years ago). The waters eventually evaporated away and left immense deposits of gypsum (also known as the mineral calcium sulfate) in the former seabed. Tectonic activity then uplifted the mountain ranges on either side of today’s Tularosa Basin. Over tens of millions of years, rain slowly dissolved the gypsum deposits in the mountains and ancient rivers carried the minerals to today’s White Sands National Park. The dunefield is relatively new, geologically speaking: it’s only 10,000 years old.

Gypsum has a number of beneficial uses for humans: it’s the prime component of drywall, which is used in building construction, plaster of Paris, and toothpaste. It’s also found in all kinds of food, including canned vegetables, white flour, ice cream, and in the production of both beer and wine; people ingest almost 30 pounds of gypsum during their lifetimes.

The mineral’s usefulness led to the designation of White Sands as a national monument in order to protect the area, and its plants and animal ecosystems, from commercial development.

Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) is a really interesting desert succulent. Native Americans had more than 100 uses for the plant, including as a source of food, fibers for the manufacture of textiles, and true to its name, soap. The stem of the soaptree yucca, which grows underneath the sand, can be many times longer than the height of the plant above ground. As sand moves and threatens to cover the plant, the soaptree yucca continues to elongate its stem so that the plant’s photosynthesizing leaves stay above ground.

The seed pods of soaptree yucca (shown here in their dried form at the end of November) had many uses for Native Americans, and they’re also important to the desert ecosystem. The park is home to 800 different animal species, 650 of which are moths. Thirty-five of the moth species are found only at White Sands. Several different types of moths are responsible for pollinating the soaptree yucca, and they also lay their eggs in the flower pods.

One thing the scientists don’t know is why Gunther enjoys running on the sand so much. He did this at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, and he’s done it on beaches at reservoirs and lakes. He’s kind of a nut.

The wind carves the sand on the dunes into all kinds of interesting patterns of ripples, shifting nearly imperceptibly but constantly with every gust. I included the footprint in this crop of the photo to provide some scale; who knows who left it, and how many thousands of years has it been imprinted in the sand? (I left it, about five seconds before taking this photo.)

Here was a fun little surprise: I wasn’t expecting to find rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosus) in the desert sand, but here it is. We planted several of these at our home in Denver, and they were hosts to hundreds and hundreds of bees, along with lots of butterflies, during their late summer blooms. Rabbitbrush’s pollen is important source of food for butterflies during their migration. Native Americans used the yellow pollen to dye textiles, and they used other parts of the plants to make baskets and arrow shafts.

We saw a few invertebrate species of animals, including some beetles, but we didn’t see any mammals during our hike in the dunes. The park is home to American badgers, coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, desert cottontails, bobcats, and several different rodents. Most of the larger animals beat the heat by being nocturnal: staying in their burrows until nightfall. I think some kind of bird left the tracks on the left, and I’m fairly certain the photo on the right shows tracks from a northern Chihuahuan desert wolf. (I’m just kidding with you right now; they’re Gunther’s.)

The northern Chihuahuan desert wolf Gunther stopped running around long enough for me to take this picture on our two-mile hike on the dunes. The lower areas between the dunes provide a sheltered and well-watered place for plants to grow. The black dot at the top of the dune on the left side of the photo is another hiker.

White Sands National Park is an incredible treasure. A short hike up a 60-foot sand dune rewards one with a wonderful view of mountains, sky, and … more sand dunes. Nancy and I wondered, while on the two-mile hike, what it would be like to camp on the dunes. It would probably be an eerie experience — quiet except for the wind and occasional coyote yip. The stars would be beyond beautiful at night, though – something to consider for another trip to the park.

Spring Birds of the American Southwest

March and April, 2022

The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.

Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Holbrook, Arizona

Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.

This female house finch was busy gathering materials for a nest at our campground in Hollbrook. Finches have really pretty songs, and they’re enjoyable to listen to in the morning. House finches are an interesting story: they’re native to the American southwest and Mexico, but profiteers captured some finches in the 1940s and attempted to sell them as “Hollywood finches” to bird enthusiasts in New York City. Rather than face prosecution for violating a federal law regarding migratory birds, the people released the finches into the wild and the birds established themselves on the U.S. east coast. In the ensuing years, they’ve moved both east (from the southwest) and west (from the east coast) to be found across nearly the entire country.
Here is the mate of the house finch, watching the sunrise the same morning. I’m sure he later helped build the nest, too. The reddish coloration of male house finches changes with the seasons and is dependent on the birds’ diets; as you’ll see, some male house finches are redder than others. For their size, finches have some powerful beaks.
This is a very common bird, the house sparrow, but it’s a very pretty one all the same. Mornings are a great time to take photographs of birds because the sun is low in the sky to provide dramatic lighting, and the birds themselves are fairly active.

Grants, New Mexico

The campground at which we stayed in Grants, New Mexico, at the end of March had an adjacent walking trail that wound through a lava field. A relatively recent volcanic eruption, perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, produced the black basaltic rock that is everywhere around Grants. The campground’s trail attracted a lot of birds that perched on the trees and shrubs within the lava field, including this female white-crowned sparrow that was singing a pretty song one morning. It was the fifth species of sparrow I’d seen during our stays in New Mexico and Arizona. We really enjoyed this trail, which also provided great views of the surrounding mountains. A national monument, El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”) is very near Grants, and we look forward to visiting it in the future.
Here’s the other male house finch I alluded to earlier. Dunno what he’s eating to get all of that red coloration, but he’s definitely the reddest finch I’ve ever seen. This was in the campground at Grants; I have a bunch of photos of different birds perched on different types of water valves at campgrounds, for some reason.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.

We returned to Albuquerque’s excellent Botanic Garden at the city’s BioPark, which also has a zoo and aquarium situated along the Rio Grande near downtown. In early April the garden had thousands of blooming bulbs, including daffodils, tulips, crocus, and others, as well as a lot of neat birds. This is a male white-crowned sparrow; compare him to the pretty female white-crowned sparrow from the Grants lava field, two photos above. This guy was hunting for bugs on one of the garden’s trails.
We watched this mountain bluebird bring a grub to its nest in a tree near the Botanic Garden’s farmstead exhibit. I really like the hue of blue, which contrasts nicely with their rusty chests, on these birds.
Gunther and I went for a walk on a trail along the Rio Grande bosque one afternoon and I heard this fellow singing in a cottonwood tree. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was at the time because it was so far away, but I got a couple of photos with my telephoto lens. I was a little surprised to see, after looking at it on my laptop, that it’s a spotted towhee. I’d never seen one in a tree before; I’ve only seen them on the ground, scratching through leaves while looking for bugs. (Of course, the next day we went to the city’s Botanic Garden and we saw another spotted towhee there, in a tree.) Spotted towhees are really pretty birds – they’ve got a lot of patterns and colors going on.
On that same walk we saw several wood ducks, including this very striking drake, swimming in a canal adjacent to the Rio Grande. I’d never seen wood ducks prior to our first stop in Albuquerque last November. They’re just incredibly beautiful birds (and the hens are quite pretty as well).

Las Vegas, New Mexico

In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.

This is a western bluebird, perched on a power line and watching me as I watched it. This is the same species from the cottonwood tree in the Albuquerque Botanic Garden. I’m writing this post while camping in central Arkansas, and I kind of miss those clear blue skies of New Mexico and Arizona. We sure don’t miss the wind, though.
Writing about blue skies: this mountain bluebird nearly disappears into them. We’ve seen this species in Colorado several times, including at the cabin near Eleven Mile Reservoir. You can see that the wind was blowing: look at the feathers on his chest.

Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado

We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.

We’d seen a couple of American robins, our first of the spring, at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, but I couldn’t get any good photos. There were plenty of robins at Lathrop. I’ve learned to recognize their calls, which are really distinctive once you’ve heard them enough.
I hiked through the cactus and brush (you’ll notice that most of these songbirds at Lathrop are perched on juniper) north of our campsite one morning and took this photo. I had no idea what kind of bird it was until I looked it up: it’s a tufted titmouse, at the very northern edge of its range in southern Colorado. I’d never heard of them, let alone seen one before. Neat-looking bird, although you don’t see many species, outside of bluebirds and blackbirds, that are all one color.
Here’s another new bird to me, from the same morning hike: it’s a Bewick’s wren. I couldn’t get on the other side of it to take advantage of the morning sun, but I kind of like this backlit effect anyway. I’d never seen too many species of wrens before we started full-timing in the Goddard; I’ve since seen several, and they’re very attractive little birds.
This is a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens from a long, long way from this bird, but I’d never seen one before. This is a pied-billed grebe swimming on one of the park’s lakes, and it spent more time submerged than swimming on the surface. I saw eight bird species at Lathrop State Park that I hadn’t yet seen in 2022, and three of them (the last three pictured) were species I’d never seen at all.
There were lots and lots of chipping sparrows at Lathrop. I’m not sure if there were more of these or if there were more American robins at the park (and there were a lot of blackbilled magpies, too). Very pretty calls from these little birds.

By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

January 16, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt established Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 to protect ancient Native American-created structures in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico. It’s a fantastic destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of the southwest United States (and getting there is rewarding as well).

Nancy and I visited Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on a Sunday in mid-January. Because dogs aren’t allowed on the trail to access the dwellings, we decided to board Gunther that weekend. This national monument is very isolated: despite being only about 45 road miles from Silver City, New Mexico, the drive takes about an hour and 45 minutes because of a large number of extremely tight turns.

The road (part of The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway on New Mexico State Highway 15) is paved and well-maintained, although we saw plenty of ice and snow along the roadside.
The drive isn’t only through dense forests: there are also plenty of extraordinary vistas to enjoy. This is looking to the northeast from NM Highway 15. It’s at least another half hour to the monument from here.
Due at least partially to the Covid-19 pandemic, the monument’s visitor center was closed (which we knew prior to leaving Silver City that morning). We proceeded to the trailhead that takes hikers to the dwellings themselves, but first stopped at a pullout to read about a 1966 excavation that uncovered evidence of nearly 2,000 years of consistent human habitation at this particular site. Evidence of a pithouse structure dating from the year 200 was found, along with other buildings from between 650 and 1000, as well as Pueblo rooms from the period between 1000-1300, and finally a relatively modern three-room adobe homestead dating to the year 1883. The highway on the right side of the photo, which leads to the cliff dwelling’s trailhead, was built in 1966 over some of the excavated ruins; the stone outlines in front of our pickup represent the location of the Pueblo structure dating from between 1000 and 1300. This site is just a few steps from the Gila River (to the left of this photo), so it had easy access to consistent water for all of those inhabitants over the centuries.
The monument has a bookstore adjacent to the trail leading to the dwellings, and this American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was hanging out on the bookstore’s roof. There was a time that I didn’t think too much of crows (the big park that we once lived next to in central Denver had a very large and vocal group of them), but I’ve since begun to appreciate them more. They’re very smart and adaptable birds. While Anglos tend to have negative connotations of crows, many Native American cultures view them with quite a lot of respect. I took this guy’s appearance before our hike as a positive sign, although it’s very possible he was just eyeing my pre-hike peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This is the trailhead view of the cliff where the dwellings are located, although the dwellings themselves are on the other side of the cliff and not visible from this point. The Mogollon Mountains, which include the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, are located in the caldera of a supervolcano that erupted about 28 million years ago. The eruption, one of several that occurred at about the same time in the same area, had an explosive power 1,000 times that of Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980. The volcanic material fell to the ground and, because it was incredibly hot, welded together into a rock called tuff. Later volcanic eruptions covered the tuff with another type of volcanic rock called andesite. All of the ground level of this area was once near the top of the cliffs. Following the eruptions, millions of years of erosion by water, wind and other forces created the sedimentary stone that’s in this and other cliffs. Harder types of rocks at the top of the cliff keep the ground there from eroding as quickly as the softer rocks below. A creek flowing through the area gradually carved out a canyon, and also dislodged huge boulders to expand holes in the cliff that would become caves. About 700 years ago, the Mogollons built their dwellings in those caves.
This is the West Fork of the Gila River, which starts a few miles just north of the dwellings and which one crosses over a bridge to begin the hike. The West Fork joins the Middle Fork of the Gila River a couple of miles east of this bridge near the monument’s visitor center, and they converge with the East Fork a few miles further downvalley. We’d see more of the Gila River in the weeks to come.
The short hike, a one-mile loop that passes the dwellings, is one of the more pleasant ones Nancy and I have been on in a long time. It’s shaded by trees and by the walls of the steep canyon through which Cliff Dweller Creek, a year-round source of water that converges with the Gila River, flows. The canyon and surrounding area are home to a number of species of animals like deer, turkey, and javelina – all of which provided the Mogollon in their day with food as well as materials with which to build tools. Between the animals, the trees and plants, and the water of Cliff Dweller Creek (the Mogollons likely called it something else), the cliff dwellers had everything they needed to make a home.
I regret not keeping count of how many bridges cross Cliff Dweller Creek on the way to the dwellings, but it was at least a dozen. Having helped build parts of quite a few trails, Nancy and I appreciated the work that went into developing and maintaining this one. Even though we were in southwestern New Mexico, we were glad we both had jackets for this hike – it was chilly in the shade.
To wit: I thought the material on the canyon wall on the left was evidence of a popular place for birds or maybe rodents; as we walked closer I realized that it was frozen water coming from a spring that feeds the creek.
After a very pleasant walk in the canyon, the trail rises gradually to provide this view (with a telephoto camera lens) of the dwellings. The person at the structure on the left provides a sense of scale; we were to find that she’s an National Park Service volunteer named Lena. The black streaks arising from the caves are evidence of human habitation: carbon from cooking and heating fires from 700 years ago and even further back. Soot on the cave ceilings indicates that humans lived in these caves for thousands of years before the Mogollon arrived and made improvements.

Archeologists believe, based on studying designs on pottery found within the ruins, the Mogollon people who built and lived in these dwellings originally came from the Tularosa River region, which is about 60 miles north of the monument. From dendrochronology that dates timbers used in the construction of the dwellings, researchers believe the structures were built between the years 1276 and 1287.

About 40 structures, ranging from large communal rooms to small storage areas, were built in five natural caves within the cliff. The dwellings provided homes for 12-15 families.
Lena, the NPS volunteer, said that about 90 percent of the present-day dwellings is original; the rest has been work done by NPS to help protect and fortify the structures. It’s notable that walking around the structures within Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is permitted and encouraged; that’s not the case with all NPS cliff dwelling sites because of (wholly understandable) concern about destruction from human traffic. Nancy and I have really enjoyed visiting some of the more remote NPS locations in New Mexico and Arizona, in part because of the lack of crowds.
This wood beam, or viga, is original to the cliff dwellings, and along with a series of other vigas and additional materials supported another floor above this room. The tree that the wood log came from was felled 500 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I didn’t place anything next to it for a sense of scale (it’s 750 years old), but I’d say about 18 inches of the viga is protruding from the wall.
Here is an intrepid researcher, from her tenuous perch high atop a wooden ladder, peering into the depths of one of the structures. What clues will she find as to what really happened?
This is a view looking through the natural cave opening to the canyon wall on the other side of Cliff Dweller Creek below. The holes in the walls of the structure are where vigas were placed to provide support to another floor of the still-existing room.

Despite putting a lot of effort into the construction, the Mogollon lived in these dwellings for only a short time before moving southward in about the year 1300. While research continues to determine reasons for their departure, most evidence points to a widespread and prolonged drought that forced many Native Americans into larger communities in present-day northern Mexico.

Present-day Native Americans say that the Mogollon never left; their descendants became the Zuni and Acoma Pueblo tribes of present-day New Mexico and the Hopi tribe in present-day Arizona.

The Mogollon weren’t the last Native Americans to live in this area. Evidence shows that the Apache moved to the upper Gila River in the sixteenth century. The storied Apache leader Geronimo was born very near the cliff dwellings, at the headwaters of the Gila River, in the early 1820s.

Because of the nearly two-hour drive from Silver City, the largest municipality close to the dwellings, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is not a destination one goes to by accident. However, it’s well worth the effort to get there, and we’re both looking forward to a return trip in the future.

Big Tree Trail

January 15, 2022

Silver City is situated on the southern border of the Gila National Forest, a 3.3-million-acre region in southwest New Mexico. This national forest, which is just slightly smaller in acreage than the state of Connecticut, includes 170 miles of the Continental Divide and ranges in elevation from 4.500 feet in the Chihuahuan Desert to nearly 11,000 feet at the summit of Whitewater Baldy. In its boundaries are three national wilderness areas (in which the only travel permitted is by foot, horseback, or canoe; there are no roads):

  • Gila Wilderness, which was the nation’s first designated wilderness (established on June 3, 1924); 558,065 acres
  • Aldo Leopold Wilderness, named for the great conservationist who’d urged the establishment of the Gila Wilderness; 202,016 acres
  • Blue Range Wilderness, which adjoins Arizona’s Blue Range Primitive Area along the borders of the two states; 29,304 acres

The Gila National Forest also includes Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the home to Mogollon Native Americans in the 13th century which was established as a national monument in 1907.

It’s also home to a number of developed campgrounds, one of which is the Cosmic Campground: the first designated International Dark Sky Sanctuary in North America as well as the first to be situated in a national forest. Dark Sky Sanctuaries are areas established to preserve their light-free environments at night; they’re great for stargazing and other astronomical research.

Nancy and I planned to go to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where dogs aren’t allowed, on Sunday, January 16, and the dog-boarding business in Silver City didn’t accept dogs on Sundays, so we dropped Gunther off on the morning of January 15 (he had a terrific time on the weekend, by all accounts) and headed to one of the many hiking trails in the Gila National Forest, Big Tree Trail.

True to its name, the Big Tree Trail leads to an alligator juniper tree that towers over most of the other trees in the area. The trail connects with a number of other named trails in the immediate area, making for a number of different one-way and loop hiking options. Our hike turned out to be a five-mile loop, and it was a fantastic experience.

The trail is mostly level and wide, with great views of the mountainous region all around. There are a number of different types of pine and spruce trees, along with a wide variety of grasses, shrubs, and even lichen (note the yellow lichen on the rock in lower right). We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but did spot and hear a couple of woodpeckers at work.
Before we get too far down the trail, however, I wanted to share this photo of the parking lot at the trailhead for the Big Tree trail. This was about 9 AM on a Saturday morning. That’s our pickup on the right and the Jeep on the left arrived a couple of minutes after we did. Anyone who’s tried to find parking at a trailhead within an hour of a Front Range city in Colorado, especially on a weekend, will understand why I wanted to take this photo.
This is not the Big Tree, but Nancy and I both remarked on its pleasing symmetry. It was a beautiful day for a hike.
While there are great vistas to be enjoyed, the trail is also heavily wooded in places and it’s difficult to see what’s ahead of you. However, it was readily apparent, even before seeing the wooden fence around it that this is indeed the Big Tree. It’s in a very pretty grove about two miles from the trailhead. The U.S. Forest Service, which ought to know, ranks this tree as the second largest alligator juniper in all the land. It’s 63 feet tall, and its trunk has a diameter of 70 inches and a circumference of 18 feet.
The crown spread of the Big Tree is 62 feet: it’s nearly as wide as it is tall. Perhaps the Big Tree’s most impressive statistic, though, is its age: according to the scientists, it’s 600 years old. The Big Tree had already been growing in this forest for 70 years when Columbus set sail for the New World. Standing under its boughs was a mighty rewarding experience for both Nancy and me.
You may rightly wonder how the alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) got its common name. If you figure it out, please let Nancy or me know.
Anything green on the ground (that’s not evergreen) in the middle of January tends to stick out. Although most of the foliage on the trail was dormant on our hike, I noticed this little green plant under the Big Tree (that’s one of the corner fenceposts on the left; Ken’s hiking poles are on the right). It’s white horehound, which has been valued for its various (and purported) medicinal properties for centuries. It’s also used in the making of horehound candy, which Ken really, really likes.

After a pleasant snack break at a picnic table underneath the Big Tree, we began our return to the trailhead.

We took a different route back, which included a stretch of trail along this bosque growing next to a seasonal waterway. It’s probably quite lovely to listen to the cottonwoods when they’re leafed out.
I liked the different colors of lichens on this basalt. There are about 3,600 known species of lichens in the world. Lichens are actually two different organisms in a symbiotic relationship: fungi and algae. Fungi help in the decomposition of organic matter but they don’t produce their own food; the algae do that for them. The basalt rock was ejected from a volcanic eruption millions of years ago; the Gila National Forest was the site of many eruptions over the millennia.
This picture was taken close to the trailhead on our return to the pickup. This pretty cluster of black-spined agave reminded us, although we’d walked through patches of snow on our hike, that we were still in the Chihuahan Desert.

The Big Tree hike was immensely rewarding, and Nancy and I are looking forward to enjoying more hikes in the area when we return to Silver City.

Motor Tour of Copper Country

January 9, 2022

True to its name, Silver City, New Mexico, was founded in the summer of 1870 by silver prospectors who’d found some mineral deposits in the area. Native Americans had been extracting minerals, including silver, copper, and gold, from the area for centuries, to be followed in later years by Spanish and Mexican miners. The silver deposits soon played out for the Anglos, but the town kept the name even as extraction interests turned to the prodigious amounts of copper to be found in the area.

And make no mistake: copper is now king in Silver City. The Chino Mine is 15 miles east of Silver City; it’s the third-oldest active open pit copper mine in the world. The Tyrone Mine, another open-pit operation, is 10 miles south of Silver City. Many residents of Silver City and the area are employed by the industry and references to the resource can be seen everywhere: the roofs of many houses and businesses are made of copper.

Copper has been taken from the ground for 10,000 years, but 95% of the copper extracted by humans has been done so in the last 100 years and more than half of that has been done in the last quarter century. That’s the impact of continually improving mining technologies and processing techniques. Those improvements will need to continue: there are vast stores of copper within a mile of the earth’s surface, but most of it is economically unfeasible to extract using current mining processes.

What’s the value in copper? Why do companies expend great effort and expense to dig it out of the ground? Copper has two qualities that make it extraordinarily useful: it’s malleable, and it’s a great conductor of both electricity and heat. It can be bent or twisted or flattened to whatever shape is desired, and then used to conduct electricity in power lines of all sizes or used to fashion cookware or rooftops. Forty-three percent of the copper produced in the United States is used in construction and 19% is used in electronics. Byproducts recovered from copper mining include molybdenum (which is an element used for hardening steel and other alloys of iron): almost half of the molybdenum produced in the United States is a byproduct of copper mining rather than mining for molybdenum directly. Seven percent of the gold produced in the country comes from copper mining.

Copper is, of course, also used in alloys with other metals to produce coins.

A few days ago, I was sorting through several collections of coins in the Goddard (we go through a lot of quarters to do laundry) and came across this 1942 penny. It’s 80 years old, and, although it looks like it’s seen some pretty heavy usage in the last eight decades, it’s held up pretty well because it’s made of metal. Pennies in general have an interesting history. The first pennies minted by the U.S. government, produced in 1787, were 100% copper and about half again as large as today’s coins. Shortly before the U.S. Civil War, in 1856, the composition changed to 88% copper; in 1864, the alloy changed again to 95% copper and 5% zinc. This is what the penny in the picture is made from. Because of the need for copper in the production of war materiel, pennies minted in 1943 were made of zinc-coated steel (and, because of their size and color, were easily mistakable for dimes). Coins returned to the normal production process in 1944. In 1982, the mint started using 5% copper and 95% zinc, and pennies made today are made with a base of 97.5% zinc and only 2.5% copper plating.

We spent the last month of 2021 and will spend the first few months of this year in the heart of the United States’ copper-producing region. New Mexico is the No. 3 copper-producing state, and Arizona is the No. 1 producer; 60% of the newly extracted copper in the country comes from the Grand Canyon State.

On January 9, we took Gunther on a tour by motor of the sights to be seen of present-day and historic copper mining operations around Silver City. The city has produced a handy printed guide with suggested stops along the highways and byways in the area.

Although it was a source of copper for centuries, the Chino Mine began operations as an open-pit mine in 1910. It was developed by mining engineer John M. Sully and entrepreneur Spencer Penrose. The latter’s name will be familiar to Colorado residents: he’s the same Spencer Penrose who made a fortune in gold mining and processing in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in the late 1890s. Along with tremendous profits from later copper processing operations in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, as well as New Mexico’s Chino Mine, he invested his fortune in Colorado Springs to build the Broadmoor Hotel and many other institutions in and around the city.

This is a Google Earth image of the Chino Mine (top right corner) and Tyrone Mine (bottom left corner) in southwestern New Mexico. Both are open-pit operations. Silver City is the gray area just to the left of top center. For scale, the short horizontal line at the extreme right bottom corner, in the black band, represents a distance of two miles. The campground we stayed at is just south of the Tyrone Mine; we couldn’t see it from our campsite, but we could see parts of it when walking Gunther around the campground.

Both the Chino and Tyrone mines have been owned and operated by a variety of companies since they were developed; the current owner of both concerns is Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. The Chino Mine has about 2,200 acres of reclaimed tailings (the rocks left over from excavation), while Tyrone has more than 4,000 acres of tailings and stockpiles.

This is a view of part of the Chino Mine, looking east – the mine’s many layers on which humongous ore haul trucks drive are in the middle third of the photo. In the upper third, just left of center, is a rock structure called “The Kneeling Nun” – it appears to be a figure kneeling toward the large monolith to the right. The huge monolith and The Kneeling Nun were formed about 35 million years ago from a volcanic eruption that resulted in about 220 cubic miles of tuff, which is volcanic ash that has solidified into rock. City of Rocks State Park, located between Silver City and Deming and which we’ll have to visit the next time we’re in the area, includes part of that tuff formation. The Kneeling Nun structure separated from the rest of the tuff monolith over the years to form the present-day figure.
Here’s a closer view of The Kneeling Nun using my 300mm telephoto lens. Putting aside for a moment the volcanic eruption from 35 million years ago, the legend of The Kneeling Nun, or Santa Rita, is an important one to the residents of this part of New Mexico: briefly, some Spanish soldiers under the command of Coronado were moving through this area and one of the soldiers was badly injured in a battle with Native Americans. He was brought to a monastery near the present-day site of the mine where a nun, Rita, tended to his wounds. They fell in love, which was forbidden for both, and their relationship was reported by another jealous soldier. Rita asked for forgiveness but was condemned to death. She prayed to be turned into stone, and her wish was granted. Shortly thereafter, an earthquake destroyed the monastery and only the rock formation of Santa Rita remained. Santa Rita is the placename of a town adjacent to the Chino Mine, which also goes by the name of the Santa Rita Mine.
This is a view of the Chino Mine from an overlook with informative displays about the mine’s operations. That’s the tire from a haul truck on the left. If you’ve never been next to a modern-day haul truck, just know that they are huge. The top of this tire’s opening – not the top of the tire, but the tire’s opening – is about six feet from the ground, and a quarter of the tire is set into the ground. In most mining operations, the trucks and excavation machinery are kept going around the clock to maximize efficiency. While we were at this overlook, a haul truck drove by on the road on the other side of the fence. We waved, and the driver honked his horn!

The Chino Mine was one of the operations where the processes of open-pit mining (as opposed to shaft mining) were first developed in the early 20th century. The Cresson Mine above Cripple Creek, which is an active gold mine, is also an open-pit mine, as are many coal mines in Wyoming. Since 1910, more than two billion tons of ore have been removed from the Chino Mine. As is the case with open-pit gold mining, the copper ore is taken via haul truck (and sometimes conveyor belts) to a concentrator, which chemically removes the valuable mineral content from the ore. This process takes the concentration of copper in the ore from its naturally occurring .6 percent to 25% percent copper. That material is then taken by rail (because of the mines, Silver City and, to a lesser extent, Deming, got a lot of early railroad development) to a smelter in Arizona to extract the nearly pure copper element. The Chino Mine produces about 100 million pounds of copper each year.

I should note that while mining companies dig tremendous holes in the ground for their open-pit operations, they are also required to reclaim the areas after the mining operations have ceased. This involves returning much of the tailings to the mined area and reseeding it to restore the area to a nearly natural revegetated condition. Reclamation efforts have already started at both the Chino and Tyrone mines. We’ve seen mature reclaimed mine sites in both Colorado and Wyoming, and it is indeed very difficult to tell that anything like a big hole in the ground was ever there.

There are many historical mines in the Silver City area that are no longer active, and haven’t been for a number of years. The mines’ headframes, the structures that support the machinery that raises and lowers mining equipment, ore, and miners from the mine, can still be seen on the hillsides, as can their tailings piles.

Following our visits to the Chino Mine’s overlooks, we attempted to go to an old cemetery north of the mine but took a wrong turn and ended up driving a ways on a rough dirt road through the Gila National Forest. It was a very pretty drive, but since our pickup is our only mode of transportation and we definitely need it to pull the Goddard, we decided to turn around and get back on pavement.

We drove to Hanover, New Mexico, which is a couple miles north of the Chino Mine. This is St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hanover; I couldn’t find much information about it, including when it started, online. The sign on the front door stated that services had been suspended until further notice, probably because of Covid-19.

This is a shrine constructed behind St. Anthony’s. Note the historic ore cart in the foreground; mining has been an integral part of this area’s economy and culture for many, many years, as further evidenced by the mining equipment shown in the background at left center. That’s the Empire Mine, which was a major producer of mainly zinc but also copper, molybdenum, and other metals beginning in 1915. Also note the bench on the left, next to the shrine’s gated entrance …
… which is where we all enjoyed a sunny spot to have a picnic lunch (Gunther got some Milk Bones) and think about our adventures that day. The bench appears to be appropriately made of brass, which is an alloy of zinc and copper.

I used to work at a nonprofit organization in the mining industry, and Nancy has had an interest in mines for many years. It’s interesting, then, to both of us to see mining operations, those currently running and those from yesteryear alike. Mining is critical to our nation’s economy and to our daily lives: as a flyer produced by the nonprofit that I worked at stated, “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined.” Our vehicles, our cellphones, our homes’ electrical wiring: none of those would be possible without mining for copper and other mineral resources.

Monesterio de Nuestra Señora Santa Maria de Guadalupe

January 8, 2022

We took a day trip to visit Silver City, New Mexico, in December while we were still staying in Deming, which is about an hour south of Silver City. We stopped at the town’s visitor center, as visitors do, and the very helpful volunteer there happened to mention that there’s a monastery north of Silver City. She added that visitors could enter the chapel for the Divine Service, which was conducted in Gregorian chants. That really piqued our interest, as it would anyone who was around in the 1990s and had the “Chant” CD (and everyone had that CD in the 1990s). We didn’t have time to visit the monastery that day, but we resolved to do so when we were staying in Silver City in January.

And so we did.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, founded in 1991, is about 10 miles north of Silver City on some very winding National Forest dirt roads. The monastery is home to a number of Benedictine monks who spend their days (which start at 3 AM) in worship and at work, including farming, construction, woodworking, and other pursuits. While in the Goddard that morning, we looked at the schedule for the monastery’s Divine Office online and endeavored to be at the 12 noon service.

While we were still a few miles from the monastery, parts of its buildings kept popping out through the forest trees.

The drive to the monastery, especially when we saw parts of the buildings emerge from the forest, reminded both Nancy and me of approaching Neuschwanstein Castle when we were in Bavaria in 2008. Although it’s only 10 miles from Silver City, the trip takes about 30 minutes because of the road conditions and tight turns.

This is the entrance to the monastery. Although the monastery is deep within the woods surrounded by the Gila National Forest, the cactus and ocatillo (the spindly succulent on the right, which is more closely related to blueberries than to cacti) reminded us that we were not far from the Chihuahan Desert.

Although Silver City is in southwestern New Mexico, the monastery is at an elevation of about 6,700 feet and, because of the deep shade afforded by the surrounding pine trees, there was still some snow on the ground from a New Year’s Eve snowfall. We arrived just a few minutes before noon and found our way to the chapel, as the bells from the tower overhead were calling the monks to the service.

The arched entrance and bell tower of the monastery’s chapel. St. Benedict founded his first monastery, apparently without the intent of founding an entire order, in about 529 in Italy.

There were a few monks already in the chapel when we entered, and more gradually entered until there were perhaps 12 or 14 when the service began. I didn’t want to take photos, and I won’t write too much about the service itself other than to say that it was indeed conducted in Gregorian chants and in Latin (I recognized the word “Amen” and that was about it), and it was an extraordinarily calming and restorative experience that Nancy and I enjoyed immensely.

This is the view looking northwest at the Gila National Forest from the chapel’s entrance. This monastery is one of about 100 Benedictine houses in the United States.

Did You Know / Did You Care #5

One delightful December day while we were staying in Deming, New Mexico, Nancy went for a leisurely walk around the campground but returned tp the Goddard after a few minutes to get our binoculars. “I want to make sure I’m not seeing a UFO,” she said, and she once again departed. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, of course, and went back to what I’d been doing. A few minutes after that, she asked me to go with her on a short walk. I agreed. and we walked to the other side of the RV park’s office. Nancy pointed at something in the sky south of us while handing me the binoculars.

This is a horribly blurry photo that doesn’t show the TARS in its best light, but it was, at the time, a few miles south of us and a mile or so up in the air (the page at the link below has a much better image, along with everything you’d care to learn about the TARS program). This photo was taken with a 300mm zoom lens.

Did you know / did you care that the border between the United States and Mexico is monitored by airborne radar systems? The Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) is an unmanned inflatable aerostat (a type of dirigible, but it doesn’t have its own power) that monitors ground and low-level air activity around the border between the United States and Mexico, and there’s one currently stationed in the airspace a few miles south of Deming (which is about 30 miles north of the border with Mexico). The radar data gathered by the aerostat, which is moored with 25,000 feet of cable, is transmitted to a ground station for analysis. The TARS south of Deming is the only one in New Mexico; there are two in Arizona, three in Texas, and a few more monitoring ocean activity in Florida and Puerto Rico. The TARS program is administered by the U.S. Air Force.

Pancho Villa State Park

December 26, 2021

In the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, a group of Mexican nationals under the direction of General Pancho Villa raided the U.S. Army’s Camp Furlong and the nearby town of Columbus, New Mexico. The town and camp were about three miles north of the Mexican border. Villa’s soldiers, called “Villistas,” were the first foreign forces to attempt a ground attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812.

The reasons for the raid are still under debate more than a century later (and it’s not certain that Villa himself participated directly in the attack), but Mexico was in the midst of a violent and drawn-out revolution at the time and Villa may have been attempting retribution for the United States declaring its support for another political faction within Mexico. Others think that Villa was simply seeking to take the U.S. Army’s supplies and weapons at Camp Furlong to aid in his fight against Mexican rival Venustiano Carranza.

Whatever the motive, the attack resulted in the deaths of 10 American civilians and eight U.S. soldiers, and about 80 Villistas. The town of Columbus was also burned. Within a week, a U.S. Army force commanded by General John J. Pershing entered Mexico to bring Villa and his followers to justice. This “punitive expedition” lasted until February 1917, when the U.S. forces returned north of the border without having captured Villa. However, nearly 200 Villistas and a small number of U.S. Army troops had been killed during the expedition’s battles. The U.S. Army had sent about 5,000 soldiers deep into Mexico in pursuit of Villa, and Camp Furlong was extensively developed to support the expedition. The Mexican general was assassinated, most likely by a Mexican political rival, in 1923.

In the late morning hours of December 26, 2021, Nancy and I arrived at Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus (present day population: around 1,600). The park, 30 miles south of where we were camping in Deming, New Mexico, is on the same ground as Camp Furlong, which had been decommissioned by 1923. The park was established in 1959.

This is the view south from high atop Cootes Hill, a promontory in Columbus from which Villa directed the attack on the town and Camp Furlong. The hill was later became part of Camp Furlong as it expanded to support the pursuit of Villa in Mexico. Columbus is a little more than three miles north of the border, so the mountains in the distance are in Mexico. The campground at Pancho Villa State Park, with 52 campsites built on the former grounds of Camp Furlong, is in the middle foreground.
This early U.S. Army armored vehicle is positioned at the entrance to the park’s visitor center. This is an example of the height of military technology at the time of Pershing’s pursuit of Villa in 1916; compare and contrast this vehicle with the M26 tank (named after Pershing) that was in use in World War II less than 30 years later. While the Army’s pursuit of Pancho Villa and his forces didn’t result in Villa’s capture, the effort proved valuable in getting the U.S. Army ready, from troop readiness to vehicle development, for its actions in the European Theatre when the country entered World War I.
A replica of a Curtiss JN3 Jenny biplane is suspended above the other exhibits in the state park’s visitor center. Following the raid, Camp Furlong established the first tactical military airfield in the United States, and airplanes like the Jenny provided aerial observation and communication services for the U.S. Army as it chased Villa’s forces in Mexico.
Pursuing Villa’s forces across the rough country of northern Mexico necessitated the use of new technology on wheels, including this large truck, in addition to the U.S. Cavalry’s stock of horses and mules. The text above the grille reads “The Four Wheel Drive Auto Co., Clintonville, Wis.”
This 1916 Dodge touring car is identical to the model that Pershing used as his mobile field office while in Mexico. Concurrent with the rapid development of mass-produced motor vehicles in the United States, the actions against Villa transitioned the U.S. Cavalry from a horse- and mule-based command to that which relied on motorized vehicles. Pershing would go on to command the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I – for which he’d gained valuable experience in Mexico.
The museum at the state park has an extensive collection of military equipment, including weapons, vehicles, uniforms and more, from the pre-World War I era. The slim profile of this 1916 Army medical manual gave me pause. I enjoy putting historical events in chronological context and it’s interesting to think that 50 years prior to the publication of this manual, the U.S. had just emerged from its own Civil War; 50 years later, it would be fighting another war, this one in Vietnam.
Some of Camp Furlong’s original infrastructure, such as a raised concrete area in which soldiers changed the oil on newfangled Army trucks, is still to be found in the state park’s campground. Pershing’s expedition to locate Villa was the first time that the U.S. Army used motorized vehicles, including trucks and airplanes, in a campaign; up to that point, it’d been horses and mules (which were also used, of course, in the pursuit of Villa).
You’re looking east from the Pancho Villa State Park Campground. On the other side of this campsite’s shaded picnic table and a highway that will take you to Mexico (located three miles south) is the site of the first U.S. military airfield. It was from this location that daring young men took to the skies in their mighty Curtiss Jennies, soaring southward to keep tabs on the Villinistas. El Paso, Texas (and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico) are about 75 miles to the east, as the roadrunner runs.
I’ll close with something completely different at Pancho Villa State Park: I was pleasantly surprised to still find blooming wildflowers in late December. This pretty flower is the desert marigold, which is native to the southwestern United States and north-central Mexico; it grows about a foot tall. The state park has an impressive collection of wildflowers and succulents in gardens between the visitor center and the campground.

Some may wonder, and Nancy and I believe rightly so, why there’s a New Mexico state park named after a person who attacked the United States. According to signage at the park, the New Mexico state legislature, in 1959, designated the park in Villa’s name “in recognition of the subsequent long continued friendly relations of the two countries.” Villa had, in turns, been both a friend and foe to the United States, and his story, as well as that of the Mexican Revolution in which he was a major participant, is a complex one. In any case, there’s much to be learned about U.S. history and Mexican history, and the relations between the two countries, at Pancho Villa State Park. Nancy and I had both heard of Pancho Villa prior to our visit to this state park, but our familiarity with him and his exploits ended with just knowing his name. The exhibits at the state park rectified that and encouraged us to learn more about the people involved on both sides of the border, and we enjoyed our visit quite a lot.

Military Exhibits At and Near the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum

December 11, 2021

The history museum in Deming has a large room devoted to military artifacts, reflecting the U.S. military’s impact in this part of southwestern New Mexico dating back to the U.S. Civil War period – and those from the Deming area who later served their country around the world.

Fort Cummings

There’s an extensive exhibit covering, and scale diorama depicting, Fort Cummings, which was established about 20 miles north of Deming in 1863. Its primary purpose as a U.S. Army outpost was to protect people moving to California on the Southern Emigrant Trail and travelers on the Butterfield Overland Stage line. The fort, established on Oct. 2, 1863, was near Cooke’s Spring, the only source of fresh water between this area and Mesilla, about 70 miles to the east. The spring, along with many other natural features in the area, was named for Philip St. George Cooke, a U.S. Army general who served in the Civil War and is referred to as the “father of the U.S. Cavalry.” His contributions to the war were overshadowed by those of his son-in-law, J.E.B. Stuart, an officer in the army of the Confederate States of America.

The fort north of present-day Deming was named for Major Joseph Cummings, who was killed by Native Americans. It was made of adobe bricks and was in service for 10 years until being abandoned in 1873.

Camp Cody

Camp Cody, active from 1916 to 1919, was established in northwest Deming to provide basic training to National Guard units from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa prior to their deployment to service in France. The camp was first established as Camp Brooks during the Mexican Border War (1910-1919), in which the United States sent troops into Mexico (more on that in a later posting), then the name was changed to Camp Deming at the outset of World War I. Upon the death of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody in 1917, the name was changed for the final time. At its highest level of activity, Camp Cody accommodated 30,000 troops.

The camp was also intended to minimize the threat of Mexico, 30 miles to the south, from becoming active in World War I.

Deming Army Air Corps Field

The clear skies and mild weather of southwest New Mexico allowed the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force, to develop a bomber training base two miles southeast of Deming in 1942. By the end of the war in 1945, about 12,000 cadets graduated from the training program. The airfield was deactivated in 1945 and today serves as the city’s municipal airport, averaging about 80 flight operations a day.

This is a Norden bombsight, used extensively in operations over Western Europe by Allied bombers in World War II, on display at the Deming museum. Deming Army Air Corps cadets trained with bombsights like this by dropping bags of flour.

There is also a significant amount of memorabilia from other wars and conflicts in which people from Deming served, ranging from the U.S. Civil War on through the 21st-century wars in the Middle East. There are uniforms, banners, military equipment, journals and diaries and letters to home – all of which tell a continuing story of individuals from southwest New Mexico who served their country.

Outside Exhibits in Veterans’ Park

Veterans’ Park in Deming is adjacent to the history museum (that’s a brick wall of the museum in the background). This is a 90mm M2 antiaircraft artillery (AAA) gun in the park (I didn’t notice that the barrel is pointing at the chimney of the museum when I took the photo). I’d never been up close to an AAA gun; they’re plenty big. These guns had a 3.5-inch bore, with a barrel length of 15 feet. It could fire a 3.5-inch shell 62,000 horizontal feet or 43,500 vertical feet. M2s like this complemented the much larger and heavier 120mm M1 gun, and, after seeing heavy usage in World War II and into the Cold War, both guns were eventually phased out with the development of surface-to-air missiles.
Here’s a closeup of the workings of the gun. In 1940, each of these weapons cost $50,000 to make. I was reminded here, as well as while viewing the aircraft and bombs at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, that there’s an incredible amount of engineering, work, and money that goes into making war machines.

Fitting its name, Veterans Park has several memorials to soldiers who served in World War II and other conflicts. Following the surrender of U.S. forces after the three-month-long Battle of Bataan in April 1942, between 60,000 and 80,000 U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war were transferred over land to camps. Many of the prisoners marched until they died; estimates of the deaths range from 5,000 to 18,000 Filipinos and 500 to 800 Americans. An outsized number of the troops involved with the operations in Bataan were from the 200th/515th Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft Regiments comprised mainly of New Mexican men. In fact, many of the soldiers initially signed up for service in World War II just a few steps away from the location of this monument, in the former National Guard armory that now serves as the Deming museum.

This striking monument to the Bataan Death March is in Veterans’ Park. A nearby block of stone lists the names of every soldier from New Mexico who was a soldier on Bataan. Eighty-three of the men were from Deming. The 200th and 515th Coast Artillery units included 1,816 men. Of that number, 829 – more than 45 percent – died in battle, while a POW, or immediately after liberation.
These memorials honor the men and women from Luna County (of which Deming is the county seat) who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.

Southwestern New Mexico, and Deming in particular, has a very rich history of U.S. military contributions, beginning with the U.S. Civil War era and continuing to today. Exhibits like these helps us remember their service.

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